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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Appendix 10 – Tunisian suicide bombers

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

This section details the profile of Tunisian suicide bombers: where they came from, what their social and religious background was, why they were radicalised and how they joined Islamist armed groups.

Background

Our research shows that most Tunisian suicide bombers were aged between 18 and 35 at the time of their suicide operation. They hail mainly from marginalised areas south of Tunis, such as Ettadhamen, Douar Hicher, Manouba and Ezzahrouni. They also come from cities, towns and villages elsewhere in the country, including Bizerte, Sousse, Kairouan, Kasserine, Ben Guarden, Gafsa, Sidi bou Zid, Tatouine and Ramada.

A consistent pattern is quickly identifiable. Families are usually not aware of their sons’ involvement in jihadist activities, until one day they receive a call from them once they have arrived in Syria. Before their radicalisation and recruitment by jihadi armed groups, suicide bombers led seemingly ‘normal’ lives according to people who knew them. Many families express shock after learning that their sons have gone to Syria or that they carried out suicide attacks.

Like many other Tunisian fighters, suicide bombers do not tell their families their intention of joining al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State and other armed groups, or that they plan to carry out a suicide attack. Some families of suicide bombers, foreign fighters or ex-combatants have set up organisations related to their cause, such as the Rescue Association of the Tunisian Trapped abroad (RATTA). RATTA advocates for policies to prevent people from joining Islamic State and other armed Islamist groups abroad, while also seeking rehabilitation for former jihadists.

Recruitment

According to available information, activities related to recruitment and radicalisation often takes place in prisons, universities (e.g. Manouba University of Tunis), Salafist Mosques not controlled by the government – which are often in villages – and via online recruitment (e.g. through social network groups, twitter accounts and Facebook pages).

Case studies

Overview

This section presents key findings collected from primary information sources during the research mission to Tunis. It includes information on the areas where the two suicide bombers came from, as well as material taken from interviews with their friends and/or neighbours.   It also provides an overview of the situation of Tunisian ex-combatants who are currently in prison and reports on interviews conducted with their families.  Interviews were conducted on the basis of an agreed questionnaire aimed at unveiling the suicide bombers’/ex-combatants’ personalities, background, lifestyle and affiliation before and after their path to radicalisation and jihadism.

As a general rule, topics related to jihadism and suicide bombers are not openly spoken about. During the mission, particularly in the areas where jihadists come from, locals were extremely suspicious and they were uncomfortable giving information about suicide bombers. They were concerned about the possibility of detention or police repression for giving information to foreigners. Fixers were generally able to convince people to give testimonies, but they would still often change their minds many times before committing to collaboration. There was a high level of paranoia over possible Salafist infiltration of the police, or about retaliation from the Ministry of the Interior or police.

Case study 1: Houssam Abdelli

Description of the suicide attack

On 24 November 2015, a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards was blown up by a suicide bomber in Avenue Mohammed V, one of the busiest streets in the capital, Tunis. Twelve people were killed and a further 20 were wounded. The following day, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior identified the suicide bomber as 27-year-old Houssam Abdelli, a Tunisian national. According to the authorities, Abdelli was wearing a vest packed with the plastic explosive Semtex, which was produced in neighbouring Libya. No explosive components of the IED were found to have been produced in Tunisia.

The bus attack was the first suicide attack to successfully strike Tunisia’s capital.  Two previous terrorist attacks in 2015, carried out at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, were mainly directed at foreign tourists. By contrast, Abdelli’s suicide attack targeted Tunisians, and in particular state security personnel. According to Prime Minister Habib Essid, the attack represented an evolution in the behaviour of terrorists, as it attacked a symbol of the state in the heart of the city. After the attack, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency, initially set to last for 30 days, but which remained in force until the end of the year.

Background of suicide bomber

The information in this section is based on interviews carried out in the neighbourhood of Ettadhamen, in Manouba, Tunis. A friend, an ex-girlfriend and a neighbour of the suicide bomber were interviewed.

Houssam Adbelli (whose full name is Houssam ben Hedi Ben Miled Abdelli) was 28 years-old at the time of the suicide attack. He was a street-seller in a working-class neighbourhood in Ettadhamen, where he was born into a poor family.[i] Aida, a neighbour of Abdelli’s family, said she used to play with Abdelli when he was a child, along with several other kids in the area. She said she never noticed anything strange about his behaviour, and repeatedly described him as ‘normal’. He smiled a lot, although came across as slightly shy; he was also the best football players in the neighbourhood. One thing Aida particularly noted was his family’s socio-economic status – they were poorer than most and Abdelli seemed particularly concerned about it. Aida also used to visit Houssam’s family from time to time, describing them as ‘normal’ and as ‘good people’.

Abdelli was the second of three sons and he was not religious during his childhood or teenage years. In fact, none of his family went to the mosque regularly. Before being radicalised, Abdelli rarely prayed. His sister was quite liberal for a female from the neighbourhood – she used to go out late at night and she did not wear a veil.

The suicide bomber’s friend, Munam, a local criminal involved in the drug trade, said Abdelli’s family had no idea he was involved in criminality, nor that Abdelli was regularly (almost daily) smoking hashish with his friends. ‘‘His mother still thinks her son was an angel,’’ Munam said. Everyone said that even if the family knew something about his jihadist activities, they would not talk about it.

Munam met Abdelli after he left school at 19.  At that time, he was a nice guy, always smiling and joking. Munam also said Abdelli was well known in the area for being a good football player. He enjoyed life and liked flirting with the opposite sex. His friend said Abdelli left school because he felt uncomfortable with his clothing – he wanted to have fancy clothes like some of the other pupils, but he or his family could not afford them. ‘‘He felt somehow inferior to the others,’’ Munam said. Abdelli did not have a girlfriend. He used to go out with many women (‘’easy women’’, he said), but was shy when he had to speak to someone he really liked. According to his friend, he did not really know how to talk to women or how to have a relationship.

After he left school, Abdelli started working as a street seller. He sold hindi or chilli plants, depending on the season. Occasionally, he also sold clothes.  He used to tout his wares in front of the well-known Guffran mosque, which is where Munam and Abdelli met for the first time. His friend said that Salafists approached Abdelli and invited him to join daily prayers.  At that time, in 2011-2012, Salafists were everywhere as a result of the lack of restrictions after the overthrow of the previous regime, and mosques were allowed to operate virtually uncontrolled. Abdelli was still drinking and smoking hashish, but he also started to pray regularly, signalling the beginning of a shift in behaviour.

Before he became radicalised, Abdelli was struggling to find a better job, as is the case with many young Tunisian jihadist recruits. Shortly after quitting his studies, he started to steal and soon entered the local ‘crime’ circle, which had close links to drug trafficking. He was a binge drinker, and his friend said he used to meet him in a bar every day. However, he was not violent; he liked jokes and enjoyed hanging out with friends and women, whilst football was his biggest passion. His largest problem was unemployment, and the sense that improving his life was impossible, his friend said.

Aida, his neighbour, used to have friendly chats with Abdelli. He would say to her ‘‘Hi Duda, how are you doing?’’ and would talk for a while. But then his behaviour changed quickly – ‘‘from one day to another, he has been brainwashed,’’ she said. She could not say exactly when it happened, but it was sometime after the revolution. By 2013, he would not talk to her like he did before.

Aida smokes, does not pray and dresses quite freely, so she knew Abdelli was judging her, as many of the Salafists did in the aftermath of the revolution. In fact, Abdelli soon started avoiding all his friends who were not religious. He would call them kuffar (non-believer) because they were smoking and drinking. He also started to put pressure on his family, especially his sister for the way she dressed. His friend reported that Abdelli radically changed his attitudes towards females – he had soon stopped checking out women in the street – ‘‘It is haram, haram,’’ he would say. He instead wanted to have a serious relationship with a young woman and to get married, inshallah.

During the mission to Tunis, the AOAV researcher met his ex-girlfriend, Sara, who gave an account of her relationship with the suicide bomber. Sara is a young woman from Ettadhamen. At the time of the interview, she did not exhibit signs of religiosity – in fact, she was not veiled and was smoking in public.

‘‘I started to date Abdelli when he first asked me out. At the beginning, I was intrigued by him, but our relationship did not last very long. He was too serious about it since the first day. He soon asked me to get engaged in the mosque El Guffran in front of his trusted imam, but I refused. I knew another five girls from the neighbourhood who end up in Syria, following their husbands after getting engaged in that mosque. I did not trust his intentions so I decided not so see him anymore,’’ Sara said.

Abdelli seemed to be deeply charmed by the imams’ speeches, particularly certain sermons held by a famous imam called Ninja. According to the information gathered, Salafist recruiters are specialists in targeting and indoctrinating young men – they appear to be well versed in how to approach them and convince them to die as suicide bombers.

Some in the neighbourhood knew that Salafists helped Abdelli with money from time to time. They also gave presents to his family for the Eve of Eid (for example, they bought his family an hallush). His friend Munam also believes Abdelli started to receive larger amounts of money, but he did not know exactly how much. By 2014, Abdelli had grown a beard and would avoid talking to any of his former friends.

In August 2015, Abdelli was arrested on suspicion of having terrorist links, but was released shortly afterwards by the judicial authorities alongside a group of other suspects. Ministry of the Interior Security Chief Rafik Chelli issued a statement to a local radio station, stating the suspects were set free due to a lack of evidence against them.

In mid-2015, before the eventual attack took place, Abdelli disappeared for two to three months. Some say he was in Syria, but they do not know for sure. When he came back, he would not tell his friends where he had been. He just said that he had been praying a lot; that God had asked him to take it very seriously.

According to a friend who was interviewed by the media, Abdelli appeared to be disturbed a few days before the bombing, who said he was mostly talking about life-after-death and heaven. Abdelli did not want to die, his friends said – suggesting that he must have been brainwashed by Salafists with stories about heaven and paradise.

Influences on the decision to become a suicide bomber

It became clear from the research and interviews conducted with Abdelli’s friends and family in Tunis, that combination of factors interacted to contribute towards his radicalization, and to his decision to become a suicide bomber. These factors are not exclusively limited to, but certainly include the following:

  • Youth/immaturity
  • Unemployment and financial issues
  • Frustration with his personal economic and social condition, and the wider context of this
  • Criminality and problems with the police, particularly the authorities’ perception of residents from particular neighbourhoods and backgrounds.
  • Extremist behaviours, e.g. experimentation with drugs and alcohol
  • A lack of alternatives lifestyles or opportunities
  • Weak personality, someone who may have been easily influenced by others

Community and family response to the attack

Shock, fear and shame were the main reactions of the suicide bomber’s family and the wider local community. After the attack, police came to his family’s house – some family members were arrested and monitored under suspicion of having helped orchestrate the suicide bombing. They were later found to be innocent, as is often the case in such scenarios. Abdelli’s involvement in the suicide attack however remains a source of shame for the family, who do not want to talk about the topic and are trying to forget what happened, with Abdelli’s neighbour remarking that the ‘‘Families of terrorists pay hard consequences for their sons’ actions. They are often interrogated by the police and they remain stigmatised within the community.’’

A very good friend of Abdelli, who was a presidential guard, died in the attack. People were especially shocked to hear that Abdelli could target the presidential guards’ bus knowing that friend was present that day. They believe someone ‘strong’ is behind the attack, and that they must have coerced Abdelli forcefully to commit the abhorrent deed, which he would not have become involved with otherwise.

After the attack, people were scared of talking about the situation, particularly his family members.  They moved to another area in Mnihla, but they are now residing back in Ettadhamen. They could not escape the feeling of fear that follows them wherever they go.

Recruitment procedures at El Guffran mosque

The interviews gave some insight into the recruitment procedures employed at El Guffran Mosque in Ettadhamen. These are likely to be standard procedures used in other mosques controlled by Salafists within Tunisia.

During the mission, the AOAV researcher visited the outside of the mosque, which is located in Intilaqa, the area of Ettadhamen in which the suicide bomber’s family lives. Access to the mosque is not visible from the main road, as the main entrance point is located at the bottom of a street crowded with street sellers and vendors.  However, many of the sellers appeared to be fake. One man stood at the main entrance to the mosque, surrounded by other men who appeared to be guardians, and therefore it was not possible to approach the mosque without being noticed. During the short visit, the researcher could not see any women in the mosque from her position outside on the street.

The mosque has been run by Salafists since the 2011 Tunisian revolution. It is the place where most young men in the neighbourhood are approached by Salafist groups, who now have greater potential to hold influence over many disenfranchised young people in the local community.

According to our research, Salafists first focus on identifying their target. They do not try to approach everyone, only those who meet their specific standards and who may be especially susceptible to influence, (for example, those who are young, unemployed, have a weak personality and are not controlled by their families – as was the case with Houssam Abdelli). They then make an approach, offering money to gain their target’s trust. Not a large amount, in the first instance, but still a significant amount for a young man of the area (usually around 200 to 300 hundred dinars). This encourages them to remain close to the mosque and to come back regularly to attend prayers.

The person charged with recruitment then becomes a sort of mentor, a daily presence in the life of the future suicide bomber. It seems that the relationship between the mentor, an older Salafi man, and the new recruit is strengthened through long dialogues designed to show the younger man the ‘right’ path. The mentor, either alone or with a group, goes to see his target every day, particularly highlighting his weaknesses, such as his social status, the stigmatisation he experiences, and the lack of money and support from the state. The older man stresses how the intended recruit’s family needs financial support. The mentor shows himself to be generous, and usually comes across as willing to support and protect them. This process of building trust is accompanied by regular prayers and long, repeated readings of the Quran, in which the mentor gives strict interpretations of the hadiths.  Increasingly, the reading process mainly focuses on hadiths related to jihad, and soon evolves into training and action.

Case study 2: Sabr el-Ayari

Description of the suicide attack

On 19 June 2013, 23-year-old Tunisian Saber el-Ayari woke early in the morning in Baghdad, Iraq, for the prayer of al fajr. He prayed using verses of the Quran centred on the concept of jihad, to strengthen his will and faith (through the belief that Prayer strengthens human weakness) before carrying out his suicide mission. Before he carried out the attack, Ayari wrote a letter saying goodbye to his family, and encouraged his brothers to join the jihad as he had. He also explained the motivation for the actions he planned to carry out, which lay in the strict interpretations of sharia found in the Quran. Later that same day, he blew himself up at a Shia military barracks in Baghdad, killing 19 soldiers.

Background of the suicide bomber

Sabr was born and raised in Dubrazville, a poor neighbourhood of El Ouardia, in the suburbs of Tunis. Locals sometimes call it the ‘Chicago of Tunisia’ due to its infamously high rate of criminality.

During the research mission to Tunisia, a number of people were interviewed, including a journalist specialising in terrorism issues in Dubrazville, the suicide bomber’ s neighbour and also one of his father’s friends.

According to the information gathered, Ayari’s family did not own their apartment, and were paying rent to live in housing which can be described as modest. ‘‘For families like this, feeding their kids is a big challenge,’’ said Munir, a neighbour of Ayari’s family. ‘‘Parents look forward to their economic independence, and often the kids feel they are just a weight for their parents as they don’t earn money.’’ After Ayari’s older brother had left school, he soon became a well-known criminal in Dubrazville. Ayari himself however took a different path when he was approached by a group of Salafists, whose influence in the area had increased significantly in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.

According to collected testimonies, Ayari had not previously been considered as religious. He did not pray regularly and he drank beer with his friends from time to time. His neighbour, Munir, describes him as smart. He said Ayari was not a trouble maker like his older brother and he did not want to steal. He had a girlfriend at school, but was not thinking about getting engaged yet. Munir described him as a ‘‘normal guy’’.

After completing his studies Ayari started to look for odd jobs in Dubrazville, but struggled to find anything stable. Munir says the Salafists offered Ayari some money. ‘‘You give those guys 20-30 dinars and they would be ready to kill their father for that,’’ said another man from the local neighbourhood. Ayari began to pray regularly and started to hang out with a group of Salafists in the mosque – from this point onwards, he progressively became radicalised and started displaying significant changes in behaviour.  From time to time he went missing from Dubrazville, but nobody knew where he went.

Like others before him, Ayari seems to have followed specific steps and phases that characterise the path to becoming a suicide bomber. First, he was identified, targeted by extremists and invited to join individual and collective prayers. During this phase, he would pray regularly at the mosque and feel devoted to his faith. ‘‘This is a strong and reassuring feeling for someone who has never been close to religion before, and is a determinant phase in the path towards becoming a suicide bomber,’’ explains Mejri, a journalist who specialises in religious extremism in El Ouardia. Next, he was indoctrinated into believing in the ideals of jihad, holy martyrdom and sacrifice for the greater good. During this phase, Ayari tended to isolate himself from his family and friends. He could not reconcile his current self with his past life, his childhood, or his familial roots.

‘‘In case of doubt or hesitation, the Salafist recruiters would be able to provide any sort of explanation using the sources of the Quran. They can answer all questions,’’ said Salah, a man from the neighbourhood whose brother had left for Syria. ‘‘But they don’t take their words from God; they don’t know nothing about Islam, but they have a specific expertise of convincing and turning young people.’’

After a period of relative isolation, Ayari started to prepare his departure. He did not say goodbye to family or friends before he left Tunisia. In early 2013, Ayari’s mother received a call from him, during which he told her that he had gone to Libya to fight the good cause. He asked his mother to convince his brother to follow the same path.

Ayari would never return home, carrying out his suicide attack in Baghdad a few months later. It is not clear whether his family knew that he had travelled onwards to Iraq from Libya. Like other suicide bombers, he went to Libya for training before the attack. A friend of his father said he could not believe that Ayari really wanted to die or to kill other people. Walid Mejri, a journalist investigating the phenomenon of suicide bombers in Tunisia, said the path to becoming a suicide bomber is composed of specific phases, which are outlined below. This case study seems to fit this conceptualisation particularly well.

Phases of radicalization

  1. Identification of target

In the first phase, the target is observed, identified and approached by recruiters. Even though the official criteria for targets are not known and may vary depending on individual cases, they are largely deductible from profiles that have been analysed. This phase usually lasts around 2-3 months and is mainly characterised by encouraging prayer and a strong, renewed faith in God (Allah).

  1. Indoctrination and radicalisation

In this phase, the new recruit undergoes intense and daily (sometimes more than once per day) sessions of indoctrination. In some cases, the mentor is responsible for carrying out the indoctrination themselves, whereas in others it occurs through social networks and jihadist chatrooms. During this phase, the recruiter radicalises the target’s Islamic beliefs. The recruit may become obsessed with the idea of living in a land of kuffar (non-believers) where sharia law is not the rule of the land. Ideas around sacrifice for jihad become clearer and more prominent in their personal outlook. Throughout this stage, the recruit’s perception of others, including friends and family, will often change significantly, and is mainly based on the extent of their belonging to the kafir/non-kafir world. This phase paves the way towards becoming progressively more and more isolated from others.

  1. Separation and isolation

During this phase, the young recruit is largely isolated from his family and environment. Separation aims to minimise external influences that could undermine the recruit’s decision to become a suicide bomber. His mentor now dominates and manipulates his mind, pushing the recruit to focus on otherworldly dimensions: such as life after the attack, and the Prophet Mohammad at the time of his hijra from Mecca to Medina. Terrorism expert Mazen Sharif describes this phase of transition towards a different identity as a new space-temporal reality. In this dimension, real life is left behind whilst the recruit’s existing (soon to become ‘previous’) identity transforms into a new inner self.

Psychological and technical trainings, being assigned a mission and registering a goodbye message are the last stages before the suicide bombing takes place.

Motivations to commit the suicide attack

Again, whilst Ayari’s motivations to carry out the attack are multiple and complex, several key contributing factors can be identified. This set of factors is remarkably similar to the factors identified in many other cases involving the recruitment of suicide bombers, including the previous case study on Houssam Adbelli. Ayari’s motivations to carry out the attack include: concerns over money, issues regarding finances and employment, a lack of alternative economic opportunities and a lack of alternatives to leading a life of criminality in his neighbourhood.

The fact that Ayari appears to have been indoctrinated relatively quickly, is another important factor suggesting that those with a weak or easily-influenced personality are often targeted by recruiters, and may be more easily led down the path towards becoming a jihadi suicide bomber.

Family and community reaction

Shame and horror were the immediate reactions within the suicide bomber’s immediate family and the wider local community. However, the family refuses to consider Ayari as a terrorist, instead remembering him as a Shaheed (martyr). The community as a whole seemed to want to forget what had happened.

Case study 3: Sousse

The following case study is based on interviews with families of ex-combatants from the governorate of Sousse, located approximately 140km from the capital, Tunis. In contrast to the economically-underdeveloped and socially deprived Tunis suburbs of Ettadhamen and Dubrazville mentioned in the previous two cases, Sousse is a famous and thriving coastal town, which benefitted greatly as a result of many years of investment in hotels and the tourism industry under former president Ben Ali.

The Riadh Palm Hotel in Sousse, where the first suicide bomber attack after the revolution took place.

During the mission, the AOAV researcher interviewed families of ex-combatants from Hammam Sousse, located in the northern part of the town.[ii] The socio-economic status of families living in this area is generally middle- to high-income, with low rates of criminality and drug trafficking. Nevertheless, a significant number of Salafists came to the suburbs of Sousse in the aftermath of the revolution. Sometime around the end of 2011 or the start of 2012, approximately one year after the revolution which had deposed the previous regime, a group of 13 young Tunisian teenagers left their homes in Hammam Sousse to join the jihad in Syria. Their families have been awaiting their return ever since. During interviews conducted by the AOAV researcher, the mothers of the ex-combatants were very emotional. They cried while holding pictures of their sons.

Nura, Mohammed’s mother, said her son was handsome and smiled a lot. He was not religious – in fact, he did not even pray. She felt that everyone in the neighbourhood liked him. ‘‘He’s not a terrorist nor an extremist. He did not know what he was doing. They must have told him some stories on Syria and they convinced him to go,’’ she said. ‘But that was Assad propaganda, and they are now keeping him in prison.’’

Mohammed’s mother insisted on showing me pictures of her son before he disappeared. She also wanted to show me pictures of her daughter, who was wearing shorts. ‘‘Before, he was happy with his sister wearing shorts and short skirts,’’ she lamented. ‘‘We don’t know what they did to his brain, but he’s innocent.’’

Mohammed’s mother paints a rosy picture of her son’s childhood. He was a good student and was said to be gentle and friendly, whilst he loved playing football and had a lot of success with girls. She does not understand why he left. She says he had everything he needed – he lived in a big house and was studying in the famous Beaux Arts Institute of Sousse, and he wanted to go to university after completing his studies there. His family was not rich, but nonetheless he wore expensive clothes.

Mohammed’s mother noticed that before he left he was saving money. At the time, she thought he was being smart and didn’t want to waste money (as he did not smoke nor drink). In reality however, he was likely putting money aside in order to go to Syria. Nura said she remembers that the day before he left, and remembers that he was laughing with his sister in the living room. ‘‘He did not know what he was doing,’’ she maintains.

Thanks to the support of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA), Nura, together with other families, went to Syria in 2014 and was able to see her son in prison.  Tunisian authorities are reported to be negotiating the return of 48 young Tunisians who are currently in prison in Syria. However, negotiations are stuck and no notable progress has been made, making it appear the government is not making much effort to secure their release.

Sami Kamel, who was 21 at the time of his disappearance, was part of the same group of young Tunisians who left Hammam Sousse to travel to Syria. He was also studying at the Beaux Arts Institute of Sousse. ‘‘It is clear that the Tunisian authorities do not want these young people back. Their mothers will tell you that their sons are angels, but the idea of jihad is still in their mind and they won’t change it,’’ said Mohsen, Kamel’s uncle. ‘‘I miss my nephew, but I don’t want him to come back. I am scared for my sons and for my community. These people are like a virus for us.’’

Mohsen cannot understand the ways in which Kamel had changed. As a child, he was no different from the others – he liked watching cartoons and playing with his cousins and friends. ‘‘He used to spend long hours in our house. He was like a second son to us. He would never refuse a kiss or a cuddle,’’ Mohsen said.

Kamel appeared very happy to be studying at Beaux Arts. He insisted on being enrolled there and he was a good student. He also enjoyed socialising, and often went out drinking beer with friends and liked flirting with women, although he did not have a girlfriend.  Before 2011, he did not even pray. However, his attitudes seemed to change very quickly.

He started to pray regularly, five times a day at the neighbourhood mosque. ‘‘After two to three months he became another person,’’ Mohsen said. His said his nephew had stopped talking to his friends and he accused his family members of being kuffar (non-believers). ‘‘We started arguing very often. He was telling his sister, my wife, that she made a big mistake to get married to a kafir like me. I did not want him any more in my house. I was scared he could have a bad influence on my son, who was only 3 at that time,’’ he added.

Kamel’s relationship with his family worsened, and he began to treat them with disdain. ‘‘His father was hospitalised for a long period. He never went to visit him, because he was just a kafir.’’ Mohsen said. In the summer of 2011, Kamel and other young men from the neighbourhood met every night in front of the shop of a famous Salafi man, who had been in prison when Ben Ali was in power. They often stayed late and talked about religion together. Mohsen is adamant that the older man was their mentor, and that he must have organised their trip to Syria.

Mohsen remembers that in the months leading up to Kamel’s sudden departure for Syria, he frequently talked about the importance of jihad.  Osama bin Laden became an idol for him, and Kamel could not stop watching videos of him on Youtube. According to Mohsen, it is very difficult and almost impossible to identify a specific group of Salafists or a particular imam as being behind the departures. ‘‘Those groups keep moving from one place to another to recruit more young people and to avoid to be noticed by the police,’’ Mohsen said.

One day, towards the end of 2011, Kamel told his mother he was going to Tunis to attend special classes, and asked his father for 200 dinars. His family thought he was saving money because he was being smart. ‘‘God only knows how long he was planning to go to Syria,’’ said Mohsen. After Kamel had initially been gone for a few days, he called his mother and said he was in fact in Libya, not in Tunis as he had told them. He only spoke regularly to his mother and sister, but not to the kuffar men of his family. ‘‘I was listening to their calls. He did not say anything about the training he was receiving. He was just saying that God asked him to do what he was doing,’’ Mohsen explained.

Kamel’s group was arrested soon after arriving in Syria. In total, 48 young Tunisians are registered as being held in Syrian prisons. ‘‘These Tunisians are lost for us,’’ Mohsen said. ‘‘They were meant to be the future of this nation, but it’s now better if they remain where they are.’’ Other interviewees from Sousse echoed this view, stating their belief that ex-combatants never really give up the idea of jihad. One interviewee, Soufian, from Kalaa Kabira, knows a few ex-combatants from his village. ‘‘If they are back, it’s only because they are harmed and they can’t fight any more. The ideas of jihad and martyrdom still remain in their head. Forget about changing it,’’ he said.

Soufian explains that for those who leave, going back to Tunisia is not really an option. Firstly, he said that they thought of Tunisia as a kafir state where sharia is not practiced, and they would not want to come back to living within kafir borders. Secondly, he said they know that once they arrive back in Tunisia, they will likely end up in prison. However, Soufian said that some of them do manage to return and live a normal life, but even amongst those who come back, ‘‘the idea of jihad will never leave their minds.’’

The below images are of Tunisian families asking for the return of their sons kept in Syrian prisons during a conference press. The event was organized with the support of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped abroad (RATTA).

Case study 4: Ezzarha

In this case study, which focuses on a Tunisian Jihadi from the town of Ezzarha, the names of the individuals were withheld. The jihadi is referred to as ‘M’, and his brother (with whom the interview was conducted by the AOAV researcher) is identified as ‘H’

‘H’ lost his younger brother ‘M’ three years ago. However, he does not know how he died, only knows that M gave his life for Islamic State. Before talking about his brother, H said that the Tunisian state does little for its youth. According to H, who often engages in social activities designed to help young people, the problem of extremism does not only affect poor young people with no access to education. ‘‘Sons of parliamentary members and famous Tunisian millionaires also disappeared from their homes to join the jihad in Syria,’’ he explained. ‘‘Extremism is not only a socio-economic issue. It is indeed a problem of youth.’’

H and his brother were born to a middle-class family in Ezzahra, a coastal town located on the southern outskirts of Tunis, in the governorate of Ben Arous. H said his younger brother M was a very shy child, but that he was normal in other respects. He was, however, shorter than his four brothers. They used to call him ‘little shrimp’, but he laughed about it.

In his first year of primary school, M was described as extremely shy towards other pupils, but he results at school were impressive – he came top of his class nine years in a row. Then, in 2007, his performance at school suddenly dropped off, after he started to hang out with a group of older students at his high school. According to H, They were all close to the Salafi Wahhabi movement at the Ezzahra mosque. At that time, Islamist groups and especially Salafists were extremely discrete, as they were very wary of government repression and could not operate with total freedom. Nonetheless, they remained active in the area. ‘‘That groups of guys had a terrible influence on my brother,’’ H said. ‘‘They kept telling him that studying school programs was haram (forbidden) and that a good Muslim only has to read the Quran.’’

In 2008, 27 young Tunisians – including M – were arrested on suspicion of being affiliated to al-Qaeda. However, thanks to family connections within the Ministry of the Interior, M was released from Bouchoucha prison shortly after his arrest. ‘‘After this experience, my brother stopped praying and went back to a normal routine. He went back to studies and to his old friends, he went out at night and he stopped praying,’’ said H. ‘‘We thought he was safe, but that was an illusion.’’

Like many other students, he prayed before passing the final exams of Bac[iii] in 2011-2012. Across the same time period during which M was finishing his studies, thanks to the new Troika government’s amnesty, many Salafists were released from prison, including M’s former group of friends whom he had previously been arrested with on suspicion of terrorism. ‘‘We did our best to convince him not to join that group anymore,’’ H said in a very emotional tone. ‘‘But he did not want to listen to us. I could see in his eyes he already took his decision.’’

In 2013, together with other Salafist friends, M went to Syria. He only survived a few months.

H showed a picture of his brother while he was calling his family from Skype, in which M was holding a Daesh flag. During his training in Raqqa, M learnt how to fight and wear an explosive belt.

‘‘Despite it all, he looked happy,’’ H said. ‘‘Sometimes he looked nostalgic, but he never wanted to come back home.’’

Tunisia: final observations

We can conclude that the evolving phenomenon of suicide bombers represents a new reality in the panorama of terrorist activities in Tunisia. For some young Tunisians it even appears that becoming a suicide bomber is now considered, worryingly, as a valid alternative to unemployment.

In most cases, new recruits become suicide bombers without receiving training for fighting. In other cases, however, the decision to volunteer for a suicide mission may occur at a later stage, and may come after several years of involvement in jihad.

All cases observed through AOAV’s research in Tunisia, demonstrate that suicide bombers and extremists were on the whole not particularly religious before becoming radicalized. One notable habit of these individuals prior to their period of radicalization and recruitment, was that they were often binging on drink and drugs.

Despite such observations and the presence of significant commonalities amongst multiple cases, however, we conclude that it is hard to outline a general socio-economic profile of Tunisian suicide bombers. While most recruits come from poor and marginalised communities with high rates of criminality and unemployment, some examples of successful jihadi recruitment also occurred in wealthy and educated areas.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] ID card details available

[ii] It is worth mentioning that former President Ben Ali and his family are originally from Hammam Sousse.

[iii] Last year of high school in the French school system.